Is progressive discipline working? TVDSB says yes

Despite acknowledging that violence in schools is on the rise, Thames Valley District School Board Superintendent of Safe Schools, Dennis Wright, says its progressive discipline policy, as mandated by the province, is working.

The board responds to concerns from teachers that students who misbehave face few consequences

The Thames Valley District School Board's superintendent of safe schools said the progressive discipline approach is a better way to deal with problem behaviour in schools. (Shutterstock / 271 EAK MOTO)

After several teachers raised concerns about the rate of violence at schools across the Thames Valley District School Board, CBC News began investigating. Some teachers said since the province dropped its zero-tolerance approach to bullying in 2007 and adopted something called "progressive discipline," violence has been steadily increasing.

To find out more, London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen spoke with Superintendent of Safe Schools Dennis Wright. 

RZ: What is progressive discipline?

DW: It's a continuum of responses that we use in response to student misbehaviour, anywhere from having a conversation with a child to having them complete an assignment, restorative practices, all the way up to suspension and expulsion. 

RZ: Is it working? Teachers tell me very few kids get suspended these days. 

DW: I appreciate that you're hearing that narrative. Just yesterday, there were three significant suspensions as a result of misbehaviour. We need to be able to support our students who are expressing the need and requesting support through their behaviour. That's our job as educators.

When I was a principal, I had a young man who came in, dysregulated, punched somebody before the bell. Automatically I'm thinking, a two-day suspension. And when I called that parent, she immediately started crying and said, 'I knew I shouldn't have sent him to school, Dennis, I apologize.' My husband died this morning.' And when we hear stories like that, of course, that child was dysregulated. And she had no options for him. So what am I to do? Suspend him or support him? We have many instances across our system where students are seeking support through their behaviours. Our job is to support our students on both sides of these arguments.

RZ: That is incredibly difficult. And I assume there are other stories like that. But I am also hearing that violence at school is getting out of hand. Are we seeing more violence at schools? 

DW: We've seen an increase in students and even staff dysregulation over the last few years. There have been many incidents in schools and collectively across the district. Disruption in our children's lives with fewer supports available, huge stress loads on families, increased poverty, unemployment, lack of services, missed education opportunities, predictably culminates in students acting out and potential violence. And as a system, we play a critical role in helping what is really a community and family issue that involves us. And that is our role, to support those students and families through these stresses. 

Thames Valley District School Board has been facing tough questions about how they handle incidents of violence at school. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

RZ: Does the school board have those resources? Because I've heard if you're going to make progressive discipline work, you have to have more supports. What's available to them now is not enough. 

DW: Our administrators are extremely well trained. We meet with them regularly. That's part of my role, to train people in restorative practices and these types of dialogues. I get people's frustration because it's not a linear process. It can't be. We have to respond to the situation at hand. And prior to the change to progressive discipline, we did have, as you correctly pointed out, many students who were suspended without considering what was going on in their lives. And so I get how for some people, it can be confusing. But I'll connect it to one thing: suspension rates are down in disproportionality, but our graduation rates are up. And that's because we're keeping more kids in schools. 

RZ: Can you walk me through a couple of scenarios then? What, for instance, would be a suitable response if a student tells a teacher to 'F' off?

DW: They'd get to the root of why that student is frustrated and why they felt the need to do that. They'd work through an apology, for example, occasionally a suspension if it's persistent types of behaviour. But there's a range of responses that are appropriate depending on the circumstances. 

Superintendent of Safe schools Dennis Wright joins London Morning to explain some of the reasons behind progressive discipline in the school system.

RZ: Do you think progressive discipline is working if, as you've acknowledged, the rate of violence at schools is up?

DW: Yes, it is working. It's lowered disproportionality for our Black students, our students who are on IEPs (Individual Education Plans), our Indigenous students. We have stats that show those students were significantly, disproportionately disciplined prior to progressive discipline and even during its implementation. And that's really what we're trying to impact. 

RZ: If zero tolerance for bullying and violence is out, what is an acceptable level of violence at schools?

DW: From our perspective, there is no acceptable level of violence anywhere in our society or in our schools. We're dealing with children, and children make mistakes. As parents, we raised three-year-olds who hit and fight and act out. We have a lot of kids on a developmental continuum who are learning pro-social behaviours. Our job is to teach, not to exclude. 

RZ: What do you tell teachers who are frustrated with the level of violence they're seeing?

DW: They have the right to be frustrated. They have reporting mechanisms, and that we're here to support them. The reality is there are ugly situations that occur in our buildings. And we have expelled and suspended many students because of those. That's not off the table. It's part of progressive discipline.

Dennis Wright is the Superintendent of Safe School with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB)

RZ: If you can acknowledge that violence is going up, do you just continue doing what you're doing? Is there not some point that we have to reconsider what we're doing? 

DW: We are. Restorative practices are something we're investing very heavily in, and that's new over the last few years. That's a result of the Peel report and the bullying report that came out of Hamilton. Restorative practices is a research-driven program that helps to repair relationships and prevent — which is a key part to progressive discipline — prevent these types of behaviours from existing at all, through building relationships and connections with families, understanding student profiles and needs, and then responding appropriately to them. This is a societal issue and a community issue that we all need to be together on. We want to work with our partners on that. 

RZ: What does it say to you that teachers aren't comfortable speaking out about the challenges on the job? 

DW: I don't know how to respond to that. I speak to teachers and principals every day who are frustrated with things that are going on. I speak to our federation partners very regularly about these types of incidents. There are avenues for people to reach out to us through their federations and through anonymous reporting. It's unfortunate that we sometimes sensationalize these things. The reality is the solutions lie within house, and we're open to having that dialogue in a productive manner with everybody.


Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at or follow @rebeccazandberg on Twitter.